POOR RADIOACTIVE WASTE HANDLING AT MALAYSIAN RARE EARTH REFINERY

30 January 2013 – By Ben Messenger

German environmental research group, the Oeko-Institute has published a report criticising Australian Rare Earth mining company, Lynas Corporation’s refining facility in Malaysia which is critical of its environmental impact and its poor storage of radioactive wastes.

According to the researchers, the storage of radioactive and toxic wastes on site does not prevent leachate from leaving the facility and entering ground and groundwater.

The report, conducted on behalf of the Malaysian NGO SMSL, found that the site lacks a sustainable concept for the long-term disposal of radioactive wastes under acceptable conditions.

The facility in Kuantan, Malaysia refines ore concentrate for rare earth metals. These strategic metals are used to produce catalysts, nickel metal hydride batteries and permanent magnets. The Institute point out that a number of emerging key- and future-technologies depends from the supply of these rare earths.

However, the ore concentrate being refined at the site also contains toxic and radioactive constituents such as Thorium.

The Oeko-Institute said that it was commissioned to perform a study to check whether the processing of the ore leads to hazardous emissions from the plant or whether dangerous waste will remain in Malaysia.

Insufficient storage of wastes

The Institute said that the storage of wastes that are generated in the refining process are to be stored in designated facilities on the site for three separate waste categories.

However, according to chemist and nuclear waste expert and project manager for the research, Gerhard Schmidt, there will be problems with the pre-drying of wastes that are of a high Thorium content.

“Especially in the wet and long monsoon season from September to January, this emplacement process doesn’t work”, says Schmidt. “The operator has not demonstrated how this problem can be resolved without increasing the radiation doses for workers.”

Additionally, the report found that the stores are only isolated with a one-millimeter thick plastic layer and a 30cm thick clay layer. This is insufficient to reliably enclose several metres high of wet waste masses.

According to Schmidt, Lynas needs to urgently address the situation, and in no event should it use or market the wastes as a construction material – as it is currently proposed both by the company and the regulator (AELB/MOSTI).

“According to our calculations this would mean to pose high radioactive doses to the public via direct radiation,” he warned.

Mass balance

The project manager said that one of the most serious abnormalities is that relevant data is missing from documents, which prevents reliable accounting of all toxic materials introduced.

He explained that it is not stated which toxic by-products, besides Thorium, are present in the ore concentrate, and in what quantities.

Schmidt was also critical of the plant’s emissions via wastewater, where only those constituents that are explicitly listed in Malaysian water regulation are accounted for – not all of the emitted substances.

Furthermore, the salt content of the wastewater was reported to be as high seawater. But it is discharged without any removal into the Sungai Balok river.

Oeko-Institute said that its scientists evaluated the deficiencies at the plant as very serious and warned that those deficiencies should have already been detected in the licensing process, when the application documents were being checked.

The organisation urged that for the safe long-term disposal of the radioactive wastes, a suitable site that meets internationally accepted safety criteria has to be selected urgently.

The full report can be downloaded HERE


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